Checking Your Assumptions: Are the Jets the Favorite in the AFC East?
[picapp align=”none” wrap=”false” link=”term=mark+sanchez&iid=7650310″ src=”9/1/a/d/New_York_Jets_8430.jpg?adImageId=12802992&imageId=7650310″ width=”500″ height=”371″ /]
In the first quarter of a January game in Houston that would end up being meaningless for both team, Patriots receiver Wes Welker tried to make a cut which he had perfected over his 6 NFL seasons, and had made no fewer than 300 times earlier that season. The only thing special about this cut was what happened when he tried to make it: Welker’s knee gave, and he tore both the MCL and ACL, and would be lost for the Patriots playoff run.
That “run” is completely relative. After one quarter of playoff football the next week, the Patriots trailed the Baltimore Ravens 24-0. Not much of a run. Over the next week and a half, another AFC East team, the New York Jets, took advantage of their league best defense and drove hard into the postseason, taking a lead to halftime in the AFC Championship game against Peyton Manning and the Colts. With the benefit of hindsight, it certainly seemed that Welker’s injury represented a metaphorical passing of the torch in the AFC East, with the bombastic Rex Ryan, head coach of the Jets, leading the charge past the Patriots, dominant in the division for nearly a decade.
Pundits far and wide have panned this situation, and seem ready to buy the Jets as the team to beat in the AFC East if not the entire AFC. Has Ryan-mania overstepped reality?
I say yes.
The Jets made it to the NFL’s version of the final four on the strength of their defense. For sake of projection, this isn’t the first time a Rex Ryan defense ranked no. 1 in the league. While in the last ten years, the amount of regression for the number one defense from the prior year has varied, the median expectation for regression came (not so coincidentally) the last time that Rex Ryan had the number one defense. That year (2007), the Ravens fell back to number eight or so. A similar move by the Jets defense in 2010 should be the expectation, give or take a few spots in the rankings. The generalization of “top quartile” should describe the 2010 Jets, defensively.
Still, one would expect that the Jets return the division’s best defense. However, if the Jets are going to be considered the favorites, merely having a good defense isn’t going to accomplish that. They need to have a comparable offense, specifically: throwing the football.
The Jets have weapons. Jericho Cotchery, Braylon Edwards, Dustin Keller, and now Santonio Holmes. What the Jets do not have is experience working with these weapons as a single unit. Then there’s the elephant in the room: quarterback Mark Sanchez. As a rookie, the Jets had to (and were able) to win in spite of Sanchez, but as a second year player, the Jets will need to rely on him to lead the passing attack. There’s simply no one else capable of it. When Baltimore drafted Joe Flacco, they already had Derrick Mason as the centerpiece of the passing offense. Matt Ryan became the center of the Falcons offense, but Roddy White had already established himself when he got there. While Edwards and Holmes are both talented and accomplished professionals, neither has been on the Jets for a full season, and both rely on their quarterbacks to extend the play and create opportunities. The running stable of Shonn Green, LaDainian Tomlinson, and Joe McKnight does not offer much assistance in the passing game, as Green does his best work from the I – formation and Tomlinson is past the age where defenses have to account for him on passes.
In other words, if Sanchez struggles, there’s no safety net on this team. Jets fans should be optimistic about their chances this year, but cautious about receiving a return from Sanchez, who prior to the playoffs, showed little ability to lead a successful passing offense.
The other thing that needs to happen for the Jets to be the favorite in the AFC East would be that the Patriots need to regress back towards the AFC average team. There might be some help due to aging of key players by the Patriots, but on offense, I expect the passin’ Patriots to be more diverse, and more dangerous next year. Tom Brady’s age and health aren’t a concern, and whenever Welker is healthy, the Patriots are going to be able to go back to doing what they do. In the meantime, they probably won’t have an issue improving on last year’s rushing attack.
This time of the NFL year might be the time for all teams to be optimistic, but I’m not seeing a way that you can stretch the AFC East picture in a way where the Patriots aren’t the favorite to win it again. They do not have the best defense, but they certainly have the best offense, and there’s no reason to expect the Jets offense to be even the second best offense in this division. It’s a reasonable expectation for the Jets to dominate the AFC again on defense, but even if they decline just a little bit, 10 or 11 wins should be enough for the Patriots to win the AFC East, comfortably.